Samba: the rhythm of Rio Carnival

The samba and bossa nova are enough evidence of Brazil’s musical excellence. No true carioca will ever forget the late Clara Nunes, the country’s most popular samba singer and one of the ‘three queens of the samba’. Tom Jobim popularized the bossa nova with the ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Although the bossa nova was short lived, it made a major contribution to many jazz standards. This musical style evolved from samba, which is undoubtedly the musical essence of Rio.

Rio carnival parade in Brazil

The Three Queens of the Samba

Samba has its roots in the favelas while bossa nova primarily emerged from the upscale neighborhood of Rio. The great Clara Nunes composed many samba songs for her favorite samba school, Portela. “Portela na Avenida” being an all time favorite for her samba school. Alicione and Beth Carvalho were the other ‘queens of the samba’ that made up the trio. During your stay in the city, find out if Beth Carvalho or Alcione will be performing.  If one of these queens is participating in a samba show, be sure to attend.  Ask your hotel concierge or tourist information center when you arrive in Rio if there are any samba shows with famous singers taking place during your stay.

Samba and the Carnival

Cariocas are proud of their culture; therefore, samba songs form a very important part of the Rio Carnival.  Since the 1920s, thanks to the radio, the samba captured the music market with artists like Noel Rosa, Carmen Miranda, Orlando Silva, and Ari Barroso, becoming popular samba singers of the times. Towards the end of the decade, Ismael Silva founded Deixa Falar the first samba school that introduced samba songs to the carnival parade.

Since the 1980s, samba songs have been accompanied by new instruments like the banjo, tantan, and more significantly, lyrics filled with slang. Almir Guineto, Jorge Aragão, and Jovelina Pérola Negra were among the popular singers of the decade. Samba songs at the Rio Carnival portray the theme for each samba school. Today, a new generation of samba singers is attracting public attention.  Some of these singers include Maria Rita, daughter of the famous Brazilian singer Elis Regina, Roberta Sa, Teresa Cristina, and Diogo Nogueira (João Nogueira’s son).  These talented singers have kept the love of samba alive especially with the young people of Brazil.

Samba school songs

Every year each samba school choose their song and compose the lyrics after serious thought. Song writing contests are held and the winner’s song is rehearsed, recorded, and sold in record shops by Christmas. The song has to play repeatedly until the school reaches the end of the runway at the Sambadrome. Apart from the pulsating rhythms of the samba beat, the lyrics are what get the spectators into the mood, much more the cariocas.  Ask any carioca about songs like Aquarela Brasileira, Viva Meu Samba, and Pouca Saúde e Muita Saúva, São os Males do Brasil, some of the all time favorites that bring back nostalgic memories of samba parades gone by.  While in Rio, purchase a CD of samba school songs.  Not only will it be a lasting memory but it will provide you insight into the Brazilian culture.  These CDs can be found in shops all over the city and are especially cheap after the Carnival ends.


Rio carnival parade in Brazil

Special Group

União da Ilha do Governador Mocidade Ind. de Padre Miguel Imperatriz Leopoldinense
Portela Acadêmicos do Grande Rio Acadêmicos do Salgueiro
Unidos de Vila Isabel Beija-Flor de Nilópolis Estação Primeira de Mangueira
São Clemente Império Serrano Unidos da Tijuca
Paraíso Tuiuti


No pop, strictly samba

Don’t expect any of the samba songs sung by the top schools to be the equivalent of ‘Hey Jude’ or one of Brazilian’s current pop stars Ivete Sangalo’s hit singles. Every song has a deep meaning to it, which is why lyricists and musicians take great pains to compose a new song each year. In addition, the judges award good points to school’s with an appealing samba songs.

It would be worthwhile to pay attention to the lyrics at the Sambadrome on your visit to the Rio Carnival. Plenty of Carnival guides feature the list of samba songs to be presented by each school, along with translations. This is a way to understand the story behind the samba school parades.  Nothing happens by chance in a parade.  Each song, costume and dance has history and meaning.  The lyrics of the samba school song will help you to understand the theme of the parade and make it easier to understand the parade as a whole.